Notes from a first-year Festival volunteer

By George Alexander Wood Jr.
Reader Contributor

It is long past midnight, and I am doggone exhausted. My sweaty volunteer shirt, civilian clothes and Production Crew polo hit the floor in time with me flopping on the mattress. My spine aches like a fist-shaking crotchety old homeowner, and my fingers are a latticework of micro lacerations from forgotten work gloves.

When I fall asleep, four pointed porcelain-white tents shade my dreams. There are hazy images of swinging multicolored lights, swaying moods of music, and mountains of stage equipment and plastic lawn chairs cascading down to bury me deep in slumber following a day of hard muscle labor. 

These are the dreams of a man more than 100 hours deep as a stagehand, front gate usher, chauffeur, security guard, human sawhorse and production crewman for two weeks at the Festival at Sandpoint. 

Thousands of folks storm the Festival’s gates each year for a night or three of live music and boundless merriment, and of course I’ve  joined the fun in years past. This year, I decided it was time to give back to the cause and I wanted total immersion. 

I snatched every job I could. Here is the inside scoop:

Phase 1: Load In

Day One, like every Festival workday, consisted of sweltering summer heat, Olympic heavy lifting and good natured trash talking. The production crew met at a dusty, secretive Festival warehouse at 9 a.m., swiftly grooving into the business of loading chairs, fencing, stage platforms and so on into moving trucks for transport to War Memorial Field. Through smooth finessing, tireless work ethic and minimal bloodshed, our crew busted out a day’s work in a record three trips. 

From that point forward, the rest of the time for our strong squad of about 20 people would be spent watering the Festival lawn with the sweat of our brows. Moving trucks full of other equipment would bus in and out, and we were charged with unloading everything and building the venue. 

Some tasks were completed without a hitch. Luckily, the lifting of the iconic Festival at Sandpoint main stage tent fell into this category. The preliminary tent groundwork is put in place by having small teams crawl under the heavy fabric and connect the tent to four metal support beams. This is a draining task, lifting poles under the weight of the fabric in super-sauna conditions.

The actual lifting of the tent is a beautiful moment. With the help of two utility trucks and dispersed teams fiercely pulling rope like Alaskan commercial fishermen — “1,2,3, HEAVE!” — the tent rose skyward and eventually held taut and secure. The exhausted crew then crawled away and collapsed in the newly created shade, hands stuck in a half-grip cramp for the next quarter of an hour.

Leveling a stage on a somewhat uneven field proved to be a much harder endeavor. Each individual platform out of 65 platforms had to be independently leveled multiple times, and this required minute adjustments to each leg of the platform. All told, two members of our team and another hired hand spent about five hours lifting and screwing up or down about 750 platform legs. A brutally tedious process they somehow managed to complete without murdering each other.

OK, “somehow” is a bit of a disservice. I was continually amazed at the resiliency, the unrelenting level of stoke held by our team. Patiently waiting around in the heat because the task at hand only required a couple of hands? Shouldering a football field’s length of iron security barriers after midnight? No problem, what can we do after that? We kept it light and fun, even when our muscles were pumped out and our mental capacity to problem solve were all but depleted. 

It was this fortitude that carried us through Phase 2: The Main Events.

Phase 2: Concert Time

In short, a hurricane of activity.

When acts arrive in the morning, the Festival Production Crew took its orders from the bands’ independent production crews, and every team is different. From my perspective, one of the best production crews arrived with Jackson Browne — a real laid back and fun group. They stashed hot sauce in their sound equipment drawers, set up multiple bird totems and a tattooed mannequin head around their monitoring equipment. They requested we leave one single confetti piece in place while cleaning the stage. 

The magnificent osprey, featured on this year’s Festival poster, is a truly important  fixture of the Festival at Sandpoint. As a production crew member, you can hear this in the constant staccato calls from atop their nests surrounding the venue; see it in their feathers littering the grounds and the occasional half-eaten fish carcass dropped from above.

I volunteered for the front gate crew each concert day and overheard some guests bemoaning the heightened security at this year’s event. All I can say is despite all the “I miss the old days” nostalgia, I am grateful the organization I represent is actively prioritizing the safety of our patrons in exchange for a few meager minutes of waiting in line.

Besides helping put on Sandpoint’s premier summer attraction, there are two things that make me feel elevated and cool about my job: flashing my backstage pass to security within sight of my friends and being paid to drive around on an ATV.

One thing that brought me shame: One night, there was a tent flap covering the “M” and “O” on the Smoking Area sign and I never bothered fixing it because I chose not to invest energy in brainstorming a solution. My shoddy work still weighs on my conscience.

So much of my job as a member of the Production Crew is being flexible to help out when called upon. At one point this manifested as a text asking if I could transport Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats from their double-decker party pontoon to the hotel. It was a nice drive. He talked about working out while listening to ebooks and how exhausting tour life could be. I eavesdropped anonymously.

It’s been a helluva rodeo so far, and I’m raring to put in another 100 hours, if need be, during Week 2. Some extremely skilled, dedicated people have been doing this every season for 20-plus years, and I have a lot of catching up to do.

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